Planning Ahead

You may feel frustrated if you’ve been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or experience symptoms like heartburn more than twice week. Not only are GERD symptoms uncomfortable and painful at times, but persistent reflux action can eventually lead to more serious health problems if not properly treated.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to plan ahead for GERD and reduce your chance of triggering GERD symptoms. Advanced planning can make a difference in the severity of symptoms and allow you to recover more quickly from them.

Know the Causes

The first step in planning ahead for GERD is understanding what causes it. There is controversy among researchers about exactly what causes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) to relax when it shouldn’t, leading to heartburn or other symptoms of acid reflux.

A variety of ingredients and chemicals in foods and medications, as well as certain conditions and behaviors, are believed to play a role in poor LES function. Knowing which foods are suspected to trigger GERD symptoms in most people can help you learn what to avoid or limit.

Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have identified the following foods and beverages as harmful to GERD:

  • garlic and onions
  • coffee and tea
  • alcoholic beverages
  • chocolate
  • fried and high-fat foods
  • carbonated drinks
  • mint (both peppermint and spearmint)
  • tomatoes and tomato-based foods like spaghetti sauce, salsa, chili, and pizza
  • citrus fruits
  • spicy foods

A number of medications used to treat various health conditions are also on the warning list for exacerbation of GERD. Talk to your doctor about alternatives, but don’t stop treatment on your own if you take any of these types of medicines, including:

  • alpha blockers (for prostate conditions)
  • anti-inflammatories (for arthritis, pain, and fever)
  • biophosponates (for osteoporosis)
  • calcium channel blockers (for angina and high blood pressure)
  • nitrates (for chest pain related to angina)
  • theophylline (for asthma)
  • tricyclics (for depression)

Harvard has identified several other conditions that may put too much pressure on the LES in addition to these foods and medicines. Smoking, obesity, pregnancy, and overeating are all risk factors for GERD. Tight clothing around the waist also can be problematic.

Recognize the Symptoms

When you know the specific symptoms that signal your acid reflux or GERD, you can take timely action to minimize their effects. The burning pain of heartburn is the most common and may be accompanied by burping and a bloated feeling.

The chest pain associated with heartburn can be so severe in some cases that it’s difficult to distinguish from a heart attack. Other GERD symptoms may be harder to connect to the condition because they can occur even without heartburn.

These symptoms include:

  • regurgitation of foods and fluids into your throat or mouth
  • a sour or bitter taste
  • persistent coughing
  • a sore throat or feeling the need to clear your throat
  • hoarseness or laryngitis, especially in the morning

Be Prepared with Solutions

Knowing the causes and symptoms of GERD is half the battle, but the key to fighting GERD is being prepared with solutions. You can take control of many common symptoms of GERD simply by modifying your lifestyle.

Practice Avoidance

Awareness of what causes your reflux will do you no good unless you deliberately avoid your triggers. Once your doctor has helped you determine the offending foods, drinks, medicines, and behaviors to steer clear of, make it a point to consistently follow this guidance.

Avoid Large Meals

Heavy, fattening meals can cause heartburn and reflux, so try to watch your portion size, especially at dinner time. NIH recommends that you resist lying down for three hours after eating. If that means forgoing your bedtime snack, so be it.

Take a Lift

Harness the power of gravity to help you keep the acid down in your stomach at night. Place four to six-inch blocks or bricks under the legs at the head of your bed. A specially designed wedge-shaped pillow can also be effective. Avoid propping your head up with regular pillows, which can actually worsen reflux symptoms.

Lose Weight

Studies have shown that weight loss can help decrease GERD symptoms. Exercise and a healthy, balanced diet can help you shed extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight. The Mayo Clinic suggests losing weight gradually (at the rate of one to two pounds per week maximum) if you’re overweight or obese. Your doctor or nutritionist can help you design a weight-loss program that is both safe and effective.

While each of these strategies may play an important role in helping you plan and manage GERD, a combined approach is the best way to find relief. Work with your doctor or healthcare provider to identify solutions that fit. By doing so, you may find that planning ahead makes a big difference in your comfort level and quality of life.